David DiChiera, a cultural visionary who ‘loved opera and loved Detroit’

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Friends and associates were quick to salute David DiChiera as a cultural powerhouse who brought opera back to the Motor City, helped jump-start downtown Detroit’s revival and pioneered the practice of casting African-Americans in key operatic roles. 

DiChiera, 83, died Tuesday night at his Detroit home after battling pancreatic cancer for more than a year. 

Accolades for the impresario poured in from across Detroit and the opera community nationwide.

Michigan Opera Theatre artistic director David DiChiera inside the Detroit Opera House.  DiChiera, a cultural powerhouse who brought opera back to the Motor City and helped jump-start downtown's revival, died Tuesday.

Operatic superstar Kathleen Battle, whom DiChiera discovered 40 years ago, called him "a gift to the artistic world. I am so proud and grateful," the soprano added, "that he has been in my life from the earliest days."  

“Nobody ever worked harder or did more for an organization than David," said MOT Chairman Rick Williams said. "He was always thinking, creating and cajoling others to get on board. He wanted MOT to be the best at everything, and put his heart and soul into it.”

At Opera America, president and CEO Marc Scorca described the Detroiter as “a visionary, leader, ally, mentor, and gentleman who set a national standard of community service and entrepreneurial inventiveness.” 

DiChiera made a career of defying the odds and tackling challenges skeptics called quixotic or worse. But he pulled off his high-wire act time and again.

"David was a giant," said Anne Parsons, president and CEO of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. "He was the quintessential role model for any of us who do this work — passionate, creative and completely relentless in his pursuit of artistic and community  impact."

DiChiera succeeded in planting an opera company in a blue-collar town emptied out by white flight, diversified an art form that had been a mostly whites-only preserve, and turned a derelict movie palace full of standing water into one of the city's jewels. 

Perhaps most important, he was able to steer his company to financial stability in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse, when it looked like MOT might succumb to crushing debts. 

Federal Judge Damon Keith of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit with opera mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves and Detroit Opera General Director David DiChiera during the 30th Annual DSO Classical Roots Concert celebrates the contribution of African-Americans to the classical music tradition.

"At a time when many regional opera companies have struggled and some have closed,"  said Cleveland Institute of Music President Paul Hogle, "David kept the opera pilot light burning brightly in Detroit."

DiChiera founded the Michigan Opera Theatre in 1971, opening in Detroit's Music Hall.

Outgrowing that space, in 1989 MOT purchased the ruined Grand Circus movie theater (originally the Capitol) and plowed $60 million into a gut renovation of the theater and an adjacent building, as well as a new parking deck.  

Of the Grand Circus, DiChiera told The Detroit News, "It looked like Berlin 1945. The orchestra pit was a swimming pool."

But DiChiera saw promise, and to test his belief, he had his good friend Luciano Pavarotti assess the acoustics in 1991 by singing a bit from “Tosca” inside the hall. 

The legendary tenor assured him, DiChiera recalled, "This could be a great house." 

He raised more than $75 million and in 1996, the Detroit Opera House, last year renamed the David DiChiera Center for the Performing Arts, opened with opera legends Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland performing. 

Michigan Opera Theatre artistic director David DiChiera inside the Detroit Opera House in Detroit. DiChiera founded MOT in 1971 and served as its director. Photos taken on Friday, March 4, 2016. (John T. Greilick, The Detroit News)

Much like the initial move into the Music Hall, the opening of the Opera House marked a huge investment in Detroit's future at a time when few were willing to take the risk. 

“David stretched opera’s boundaries, cultivated new audiences, and made opera relevant to a whole new generation," said Kresge Foundation President and CEO Rip Rapson.

“He also contributed to the revitalization of downtown Detroit’s cultural and entertainment district. These are remarkable achievements.” 

From the moment he launched MOT, DiChiera staked out new territory in casting African-American talent. In 1976, he gave Battle, one of the 20th century's great operatic voices, her professional operatic debut as Rosina in "Barber of Seville."

DiChiera also commissioned operas on African-American themes, including "Margaret Garner," based on the Toni Morrison novel, "Beloved." The 2005 world premiere starred mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. 

And together with the Pittsburgh Opera, he commissioned "The Summer King," about Negro Leagues great Josh Gibson, which had its Detroit premiere in May. 

In an industry where finances are notoriously tight, DiChiera kept all this creativity going with a deft touch for raising money.

His most impressive performance came in 2013, when a group of banks agreed to dramatically cut MOT's debt if DiChiera could raise $7 million in six months. 

He threw himself into the task heart and soul, and made his deadline — in the process slashing the opera company's interest payments on its debt from $2.4 million a year to $370,000 a year. 

"It was amazing," said board member Matthew Simoncini, who recently stepped down as CEO of Lear Corp.  

"David could light up a room. He just had this positive energy and a way of asking that made you want to give. It’s a gift."

Born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, in 1935, DiChiera spent most of his childhood in Los Angeles.

He got his doctorate in musicology from UCLA before moving to Michigan to take a job in 1962 as a music professor at Oakland University, where he ultimately rose to chairman of the department. 

David DiChiera at Oakland University in 1967, where he was a professor. He said he chose Oakland over more-famous alternatives because he felt he'd have more freedom to do what he wanted.

It was a move that revealed much about the man's character. DiChiera chose Oakland, he said, over far more prestigious places like U-C Berkeley and Columbia University. 

"At a famous university," he explained, "I'd likely get to do just one thing, like teach 18th-century opera. At Oakland, I could pretty much do what I wanted."

He added, in a typically self-deprecating aside, "My friends all thought I was insane."

Orchestrator and conductor Mark D. Flint, director and Librettist Bernard Uzan, and composer David DiChiera talk about "Cyrano."

DiChiera was a national figure in the opera world. He served as president of Opera America and was also a trustee for the National Institute of Music Theatre and a board member of the American Arts Alliance.

In addition to MOT, for a couple years in the 1980s,  DiChiera was artistic director of the Dayton Opera Association, and for about a decade was the general director of Opera Pacific in Orange County, California, which he helped found.

“David loved opera and loved Detroit,” said MOT President and CEO Wayne S. Brown.  “He envisioned a magnificent venue that would attract great performers and great performances of opera and dance in Detroit, and he went out and built it."

"David’s personal charisma and charm -- plus his ability to work ‘27’ hours a day -- endeared him to our board, trustees and the entire MOT staff.  He was like a father to many of them.”

Stephen Lord, MOT principal conductor, said he came to regard DiChiera "as my ‘Opera Santa’ for all the good things he was doing for me personally and for opera.  I’ll always remember him that way.”

DiChiera's resume was dotted with honors and awards. In 2016, he won the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic. In 2013, the Kresge Foundation named him an Eminent Artist, while three years before that the national Endowment for the Arts gave him their Opera Honors Award for lifetime achievement. 

In 1979, The Detroit News named the impresario a Michiganian of the Year. 

DiChiera revealed his pancreatic cancer last year, shortly before the second MOT production of his opera, "Cyrano" and a star-studded DiChiera Grand Salute long planned to celebrate his transition from artistic director to an emeritus role in May 2017. 

Shortly after his announcement, he said, Marilyn Horne, who beat the same disease in 2007, called to boost his spirits. 

This painting of Michigan Opera Theatre founder and general director David DiChiera by Ming Qin was a gift to DiChiera from Barbara and Herman Frankel on the 30th anniversary of the MOT (1971-2001) and hangs above the fireplace in the Herman and Barbara Frankel Lounge inside the Detroit Opera House.

For those left behind, they said it's hard to believe he's gone. 

Vince Paul, president and artistic director of the Music Hall, visited DiChiera a couple of weeks ago at his home to interview him for an upcoming exhibition. 

"David was totally wonderful and telling great stories," Paul said. "And he had a great time — I could tell."

Afa Dworkin, president and artistic director of the classical music Sphinx Organization, recalled DiChiera as "a mentor and an icon for our city and our entire field."  

But at the DSO, Parsons wants to underline that it was DiChiera's personal qualities that set him apart and made him so remarkable. 

"The thing about David was how warm and personable he was," Parsons said. "You always felt you were the only person who mattered when talking to him."


(313) 222-6021

Detroit News Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed.


David DiChiera 

Born: April 8, 1935

Job: Founder and artistic director emeritus Michigan Opera Theatre

Accomplishments: Launched Michigan Opera Theatre at the Music Hall, 1971; discovered soprano Kathleen Battle, 1976; opened Detroit Opera House with a performance by Luciano Pavarotti; commissioned the world premiere of "Margaret Garner," 2005; debuted his opera, "Cyrano," 2007; commissioned with the Pittsburgh Opera, “The Summer King,”2018

Awards: Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, 2016; Kresge Eminent Artist, 2013; NEA Opera Honors Award, 2010; Michiganian of the Year, 1979

Family: Divorced, with two adult daughters, Lisa and Cristina; three grandchildren; a sister, Ellen DiChiera Blumer; and several nieces and nephews.


Funeral arrangements

A public visitation is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday at the Detroit Opera House, located at 1526 Broadway. The funeral will follow at 1 p.m.

Memorials may be made to Michigan Opera Theatre, 1526 Broadway, Detroit, MI, 48226, and the David DiChiera Music Therapy Program at Henry Ford Health System, 1 Ford Place, Suite 5A, Detroit, MI 48202.